Most of you don’t know who Nick Hornby is, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him to introducing me, in earnest, to the mythology and music of the great Johnny Cash. You see, when I was in high school I saw a movie called High Fidelity and read the novel of the same name which the movie was based off of. The book and film each center around the life of a world weary record store owner who can’t stop reliving the pain of his past heartbreaks. In one portion of the movie (I can’t remember if it’s in the novel or not) the protagonist is defending himself, explaining that he understands the complex male-female relationship because he’s read classic literature… and he even understood it! He then states, for the record, that his all-time favorite book is Cash by Johnny Cash.
That joke intrigued me. Mostly because I thought it was a funny idea–that a person’s favorite book could be an autobiography. I went to the library and checked out a copy and was so moved by his life story. To come from such humble means and through much struggle to become a huge star, only to be followed by his demons and see them take on new forms (drug addiction, marital problems). Yet along the entire path of his life, no matter how far he strayed (even to the point of attempted suicide), God wrestled with Johnny and never relented his love. It’s easy to see why he was always standing up for something besides himself, because he was so often unsure of who he was or what he was really worth. But the one constant through it all, and his eventual redemption, was Jesus Christ. If you’re not familiar with Johnny Cash’s story, I recommend reading his autobiography!
This all happened circa 2002, which also happened to be the moment in history that Johnny Cash was proving his worth to a new generation. He was already two albums into his American Recording series, which found him partnered with producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Slayer). The two had been busy crafting sparsely instrumented, layered albums which mixed Johnny Cash’s signature country and gospel sound with a more modern flavor. Rubin also had a big hand in song selection for the albums, taking Cash’s original songs and traditional country & western covers and enlisting him for covers of modern, decidedly not country songs: “Thirteen” by Danzig, “One” by U2, numerous songs by Tom Petty, and his huge hit, “Hurt” (originally by the nu-metal forefathers Nine Inch Nails).
Released this past month, Ain’t No Grave is the sixth (and supposedly the final) installment in the series. It’s composed of material that was recorded during the sessions for American V: A Hundred Highways but was yet unreleased. The arrangements are typical of the series, with Cash’s aged and sometimes cracking voice prominently featured atop his acoustic strummings, light piano and organ work, sparse guitar overdub, and little percussion. Much of the material was recorded shortly after the death of Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, and not long before his own passing. The theme of mortality runs through each of the records in the American series and is especially present on Ain’t No Grave.
That’s not to say that the record is morbid; the view of death on this album is one of beginnings rather than ends. Over the slide guitar and rustling chains of the title track, Cash sings the old Spiritual, “There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down / When you hear that trumpet sound / Gonna’ get up out of the ground / There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” “1 Corinthians 15:55” is the only Cash original, and also another of the stand out tracks. “O Death, where is thy sting? / O Grief, where is thy victory?” He sings, “O Life, you are a shining path / And hope springs eternal, just over the rise / When I see my redeemer beckoning me.” Another song that I really enjoyed right from the first spin (even after finding out it was a Sheryl Crow original) was, “Redemption Day”.
There are a few slumps, which are understandable considering the material was left over from an earlier session, but as a whole the album is an incredible reminder of the man and the music that have left such an indelible mark on American culture. Johnny Cash is an icon not only because he produced unforgettable music for practically half a century, but because his life was, and will continue to be a testament to the grace of God and the transforming power of the cross. If you have the means and the opportunity, check out Ain’t No Grave and the other albums in the American Recording series (they’re a great entry into the immense catalog of Johnny Cash’s work) and read Cash. You’ll be moved and hopefully inspired to remember God’s love for you and to rely on him to take you over each hurdle, through each valley and eventually to Glory!